In a work of historical fiction set in the first century B.C.E., Mariamne of Maccabee struggles to juggle her marriage to power-hungry Herod the Great with her loyalty to the Judea he wishes to conquer.
Mariamne waits excitedly to hear her grandfather—Hyrcanus, the governor and high priest of Judea—announce to whom she will be wed. Given the parlous political times, she assumes it will be to another Maccabee to preserve the purity of the dynastic royal line from which she descends. Her world suddenly tilts when Hyrcanus announces that he’s chosen Herod, the governor of Galilee, an old man already married and largely considered a puppet of Rome and, most importantly, not a Maccabee. She protests the planned union, but her grandfather has already made up his mind, thinking the arrangement is the most effective way to secure the eventual ascension of her brother, Aris, now only a boy, to the Judean kingship. Herod unabashedly reveals his intentions to become the king, an admission that not only disgusts Mariamne, but floods her with ambition, not only for Aris, but for herself, an internal conflict sensitively portrayed by debut author Okun: “Queen Mariamne? I rather liked the sound of it. I could be the mother of kings. I could produce the man who wore the crown of Judea.” The author dramatically chronicles her precarious position, which only grows more dangerous as Herod perceives her disdain for him and begins to question her loyalties. Okun’s research is marvelously meticulous. She deftly unravels the complex political entanglements of the time. Moreover, she brings them to vivid life, detailing the frustration of Judeans with the arrogantly dismissive Roman rule. The heart of the tale, however, is Mariamne’s psychological depth. The author resists a hagiographic urge to transform her into a simplistic hero, a decision that ultimately makes her plight all the more deserving of empathy. Okun’s first novel is a rare combination of historical scrupulousness and fictional artistry.
A remarkably astute historical depiction combined with an engrossing political drama.